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An Introduction to Cambodia

Introduction to Cambodia
Introduction to Cambodia
Introduction to Cambodia

In spite of decades of suffering, persecution and poverty, the people of Cambodia love to laugh and you are sure to receive a warm welcome wherever you wander through this charming country. The Kingdom of Cambodia covers 181,035 square kilometres and bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos in the north, Vietnam in the east and the Gulf of Thailand in the south.

Most people travel to Cambodia to visit the magnificent Angkor Wat, located near the bustling town of Siem Reap. One of the seven wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is just one in a number of enchanting ancient temples in this area, while the capital city of Phnom Penh also has plenty to offer visitors.

Although this richly diverse nation is bordered on virtually all sides, there are still some pretty islands and beaches to explore in Cambodia, such as the beach resort of Sihanoukville and the nearby islands in Ream National Park. The mighty Mekong River flows through Cambodia from Laos to Vietnam and is a great way to travel through the country.

Cambodia’s natural beauty makes it a great place for trekking and there are plenty of dense jungles, unspoilt forests and paddy fields to explore, while the Cardamom and Elephant Mountain Ranges provide a spectacular backdrop.

Subsistence farming is the main occupation of this impoverished nation, and most people live in stilted huts in small village communities. Although the majority of people (about 95%) are Khmer, there are also about twenty different hill tribes, each with their own unique culture, believes and style of dress.

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer and it is spoken by most people, while some people also speak French, Laos and Vietnamese, especially near the country borders. Although many people speak English in tourist areas and you will often be approached by people who want to practice their English, it is a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in Khmer.

Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia, with about 90% of the population following either Therevada or Hinayana Buddhism. Worship is an important part of Khmer life and you will find a large number of temples scattered around Cambodia, although a large percentage were destroyed during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia really comes alive during the numerous festivals and public holidays, and it is idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.

North Eastern Thailand

North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand

North Eastern Thailand is better known as Isan – also written as Isaan, Isarn, Issan, or Esarn. There are 19 provinces in Isan, but only a few receive interest from tourists, which is a shame as this is a great part of Thailand to relax, wander in nature and get to know the friendly and welcoming people.

Isan covers an area of 160,000 km and much of the land is given over the farms and paddy fields as agriculture is the main economic activity. The region of Isan has a strong, rich and individual culture. Examples of this can be found in the folk music, called mor lam, festivals, dress, temple architecture and general way of life.

The main regional dialect is Isan, which is actually much more similar to Lao than central Thai. Unfortunately, because the rainfall is often insufficient for crops to grow properly, Isan is the poorest region of Thailand, and many people leave the province to seek their fortunes in the bustling metropolis of Bangkok.

The average temperature range is from 30.2 C to 19.6 C. The highest temperature recorded was a sweltering 43.9 C, whilst the lowest was a freezing -1.4 C. Unlike most of Thailand, rainfall is unpredictable, but it mainly occurs during the rainy season, which takes place from May to October.

Although completely unique, Isan food has adopted elements of both Thai and Lao cuisines. Sticky rice is served with every meal and the food is much spicier than that of most of Thailand.

Popular dishes include:

som tam – extremely spicy and sour papaya salad
larb – fiery meat salad liberally laced with chilies
gai yang – grilled chicken
moo ping – pork satay sticks

Isan people are famous for their ability to eat whatever happens to be around, and lizards, snakes, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and dung beetles often form a part of their diet.

Both men and women traditionally wear sarongs; women’s sarong often have an embroidered border at the hem, whilst those of the men are chequered. Much of Thailand’s silk is produced in Isan, and the night markets at many of the small towns and villages are good places to find a bargain.

There is no major airport in Isan, but the State Railway of Thailand has two lines and both connect the region to Bangkok. This is also a good place to enter Laos via the Thanon Mitraphap (“Friendship Highway”), which was built by the United States to supply its military bases in the 1960s and 1970s. The Friendship Bridge – Saphan Mitraphap – forms the border crossing over the Mekong River on the outskirts of Nong Khai to the Laos capital of Vientiane.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos

The chilled out traveller’s hot spot of Vang Vieng is situated 120 miles from Vientiane. The journey takes just three of four hours by bus, while it is 150 miles to Luang Prabang. The best way to get around this picturesque village is to walk or hire a bicycle, but mopeds are also available for rent.

The tranquil atmosphere of Vang Vieng is very addictive. The landscape is incredibly serene and picturesque; beyond the sparkling river sheer limestone cliffs rise from a plateau of paddy fields. The river is spanned by a number of wooden bridges, which despite their flimsy appearance compliment the scenery perfectly.

Vang Vieng is a real haven for travellers and you will find a great assortment of cheap guesthouses dotted around the village. Many westerners arrive here and never leave, setting up their own bars and guesthouses alongside the many others owned by Lao people.

Chilling out is the main activity in Vang Vieng. Restaurants show Friends reruns throughout the day and night and there is plenty of good food and drink to go with it. International food is popular here and most restaurants offer a selection of backpack favourites such as pizza, pasta and spicy curry.

Walking through the scenic landscape is also popular and there are some other beautiful caves to explore on the far side of the river. Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit more energetic, why not hire an inner tube and float away down the river? Other popular activities in and around 
Vang Vieng include rafting, trekking and bicycle and motorbike trips.

Many of the families that live in Vang Vieng are self-sufficient and have chickens clucking in the garden in front of the house. As you explore the picturesque dusty lanes you will find puppies running around and fluffy yellow chicks cheep in the long grass, watched over by their clucking mother.

If you are feeling adventurous, take a walk through the village to the Vang Vieng Resort which is a large, picturesque garden with a large cable bridge spanning the river. At the far end of the park is the impressive cave of Tham Jang. Climb the 147 steps for enchanting views of the surrounding countryside and sparkling rocks inside. In the evening, sit beside the river and watch the sun slip behind the horizon with a beer or two.

Oudomsay, Laos

Oudomsay, Laos
Oudomsay, Laos
Oudomsay, Laos

Also known as Oudomxay or Oudômxa, this pretty province in the northwest of Laos was created in 1976 and is a good place to stop for a break if you are travelling between the temple town of Luang Prabang and Phonsaly or Sayabouri.

This is an area of intense natural beauty and the ideal place for trekking and to explore the neighbouring ethnic villages. Adventure sports such as rock climbing and rafting are popular here, while this is also a good place for cycling and bird watching.

Oudomsay is located close to the Chinese border and you will find an interesting mix of cultures as you wander through the province. There are 23 different ethnic minority groups living within the province, all with their own unique belief systems, customs, food and styles of dress.

A great way to spend a day is by trekking the 8 miles to the very pretty waterfall of Tad Lak Sip Et. Explore the Muong La District of Oudomsay and you will find an interesting range of temples, villages and hot spring located deep in the jungle.

One of Oudomsay’s main attractions is the Saymoungkhoune Rattana Stupa. This towering white stupa is a sacred spot and a great place to visit if you’re walking through the surrounding countryside. For spectacular views of the countryside, climb to the top of Phouxay Mountain. Gaze out at a rich vista of paddy fields, jungle, farmland and tiny villages before exploring the rest of the area.

A great place to try traditional Lao food is the Muang Xai market. People travel from all over the province to this large and vibrant market to sell their wares and this is a good place to stop eat and pick up and bargain or two.

An interesting way to travel through this region of Laos is to trek to Muang Say, then take a short bus or pickup truck ride to the picturesque village of Pakbeng. The mighty Mekong River flows from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang and the journey by large, wooden boat takes around five hours. As you sail slowly down the river you will pass limestone cliffs, mangroves and fishing villages.

Luang Namtha, Laos

Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha, Laos

Bordered by both China and Myanmar, Luang Namtha province is situated to the north of Laos and is home to 39 of the country’s ethnic groups. This is a good place to pause before making your way into China as the Chinese-Lao border crossing is located nearby at Boten and connects Laos with Mohan in China. Visitors to Luang Namtha will notice some similarities between the local culture and that of China, and those familiar with Laos will enjoy making comparisons between this province and the rest of the country.

This region is famous for its stunningly beautiful rainforest and unspoilt monsoon forest and no visit to Luang Namtha would be completed without a trip to the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area. There are plenty of animals to spot here including tigers, bears, clouded leopard, and gibbons as well as a large collection of colourful birds and reptiles.

Luang Namtha is a good place to rest and relax and immerse yourself in the beauty of the area. Walking is a good way to explore and there are several villages where you can stay for a day or two and simply explore or relax by the river and listen to the wind in the trees.

The town of Luang Nam Tha is a good place to stay and you will find plenty of basic places to stay and evening entertainment at the night market. Surrounded by a pretty patchwork of rich rice paddy fields, this is a great place to stop for a day or two and get learn about the diversely different tribes that live in the villages nearby. The town sits on a hilly area and provides great views of the surrounding countryside.

A popular activity around Luang Namtha is trekking. There are a number of experienced guides available and embarking on a trek with a qualified guide can be a rewarding experience as they can provide an insight into the unique culture of the region and make can provide access to the many villages and villagers themselves.

Tranquil and picturesque, the town of Muang Xing has a great collection of friendly guesthouses where you are sure to receive a warm welcome and a good meal. This is a good place to arrange trekking and hiking trips and to meet fellow travellers to share a beer or two in the evening and swap stories with.

Inle Lake, Burma

Inle Lake, Burma
Inle Lake, Burma
Inle Lake, Burma

Without doubt one of the most beautiful spots in Myanmar, Inle Lake is a large water wonderland filled with floating gardens, ancient stupas and pretty villages with a backdrop of mountains, valleys and lush forests. Bird watchers in particular will want to spend some time here as Inle Lake is home to a huge variety of species of birds.

Inle Lake is a great place to relax for a few days. There is so much to do here and there are a wide range of water sports to try such as canoeing, sailing and windsailing, while swimming is a great way to keep cool on a hot day. Fishing is also a popular pastime and you can easily hire a rod and join the locals as they try to land the catch of the day.

Hiring a bicycle is a great way to explore the surrounding countryside. Make sure you stop in at the Nanthe monastery, where the meditating monks have taught their cats to jump. The area is also famous for the Intha people’s unusual leg rowing skills, and you might be lucky enough to witness this as you cycle along the banks of the lake.

There are many interesting and unusual things to discover in this charming area such as the 300 year old Banyan tree with its aerial roots and wide canopy. Walk through the paddy fields and perhaps ride a water buffalo and watch the sun set over the lake.

The nearby floating market is a great place to witness traditional life and shop bargains as well as getting a tasty meal. Fresh fish is top of the menu and there are a large number of fish curries and other dishes to try. Most people tend to stay in the nearby village of Nyaugshwe, where there is a good variety of cheap guesthouses and restaurants catering to backpackers.

A great time to visit Inle Lake is between September and October when you will have the chance to witness and perhaps take part in the Phaung Daw U festival and also the Thadingyut festival. These festivals are very lively and feature much singing and dancing as well as performances of traditional folk tales.

Bago, Burma

Bago, Burma
Bago, Burma
Bago, Burma

Situated some 50 miles to the north of Yangon, the pretty town of Bago is one of Myanmar’s leading attractions and a great place to spend a little time. Also known as Pegu, the town is home to a large collection of sacred Buddha images, making it one of the country’s holiest sites.

Many people simply pass by Bago on their way to Mandalay, but those who take the time to stop and look around will come across many unique features. Here you will find literally thousands of Buddha images in carved niches in a rocky cavern and an interesting array of pagodas, temples and other buildings.

The site of Bago was founded in 573 AD by two Mon princes and paid an important role in the history of both Mon land and Myanmar before being destroyed by the Burmese King Alaungpaya in 1757. Although only a few buildings remain as testimony to this interesting period of history, those that do are worth taking the time to investigate.

Bago has a number of large pagodas, of which the Shwemawdaw or Golden Shrine is the most sacred as it is believed to contain a couple of hairs belonging to the Gautama Buddha. As you explore the town you will discover the Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha statue and the impressive Kalyani Sima or Hall of Ordination.

There are a number of interesting places to explore on the outskirts of Bago. Just 40 miles to the east is one of Myanmar’s most prominent landmarks. Also know as Golden Rock, the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a 5.5 meter high pagoda atop a large bolder covered with gold leaf. What makes this site so unusual is that the bolder is balanced on the very edge of a precipice and looks as though it will topple over the edge at any moment.

Bago is situated between the forested Pegu Mountains to the west and the Sittang River to the east. Surrounded by picturesque paddy fields, this is a good area to explore to get a real feel for Myanmar. There are number of places to get a bite to eat around Bagan and a couple of cosy places to stay.

Ratchaburi, Thailand

Ratchaburi, Thailand
Ratchaburi, Thailand
Ratchaburi, Thailand
Ratchaburi, Thailand

Ratchaburi, is located on the banks of the mighty Mae Klong River, just 80 kilometres west of Bangkok. The province is full of areas of natural beauty and historical sites. Surrounded by stunning scenery such as the smoky Tanao Si Mountains, paddy fields and waterways, a great way to see the area is to hire a bicycle and explore.

One of the main attractions in this area is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. Visitors flock to this market to discover Thailand’s unique traditional way of trading. Although today the market is dominated by souvenir stands, you can still take a boat trip through the market and barter for exotic fruit.

Ratchaburi Province contains some stunning natural caves for you to explore. Just 8 kilometres from the town you will find the famous Tham Ruesi Khao Ngu, whilst Tham Khao Bin is said to be the most beautiful. 30 kilometres west of the town you will find Tham Chomphon, whilst the mountain top of Khao Chong Phran offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

There are many interesting temples in the area such as Wat Muang, Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, Wat Khongkharam and Wat Khanon, which contains an interesting collection of more than 300 traditional Nang Yai puppets.

The area is well known for its abundant history, and a good place to discover more about it is at the Ratchaburi National Museum, whilst the Bo Khlueng Hot Spring is a great place to soak away your aches and pains after a busy day of exploring.

History enthusiasts would do well to visit the Ban Khu Bua Ancient City, which displays many of the archaeological discoveries of the area. The Siam Cultural Park is also interesting as it contains fibre glass wax images of important people such as Mother Teresa, President Deng Xiaoping and Chairman Mao Tse-tung. This display has to be seen to be believed as it is certainly unique.

The province hosts some interesting fairs and festivals and it is worth trying to time your trip to coincide with one of them.

The Ratchaburi Tourism Fair is held annually during February-March in the grounds of the City Hall. Featured activities include demonstrations of famous handicrafts, such as jar making and “Sin Tin Chok” cloth weaving, folk art and cultural performances by local tribal groups.

The Sweet Grape and Damnoen Saduak Floating Market Week Fair happens around March-April each year to introduce agricultural produce to the market. This is a good opportunity for visitors to buy agricultural produce such as coconuts, pomelos grapes and lichis at discounted prices.

The Khao Ho or ‘Ang Mi Thong’ Festival is a Su Khwan blessing ceremony for happiness and longevity in life, held around the ninth lunar month. Karen people believe that the ninth lunar month is a bad time of the year, when ghosts and evil spirits hunt and eat the “Khwan” ‘spirit’ of people. During the festivals many traditional methods are practiced to ward off the evil spirits. The elders of each family tie red threads on the children’s wrists and give a blessing for good luck.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Kanchanaburi is the largest of Thailand’s central provinces. Just two hours from Bangkok by bus or train, Kanchanaburi makes a great place for a day trip, although the stunning natural beauty of the area, combined with its intriguing turbulent history often entices people to stay for several days or even a few weeks.

There are two main towns in Kanchanaburi Province that are popular with visitors; Kanchanaburi city, which is the capital of Kanchanaburi Province, and the picturesque border town of Sangkhlaburi.

Located on the banks of the Kwae Noi, or River Kwai as it is popularly know to travelers, Kanchanaburi city is the home of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, which is visited each year by thousands of tourists from every country.

Surrounded by beautiful mountains, lush paddy fields and farms, there is no limit to what can be seen and done in this interesting region. A great way to view the countryside is to ride the Death Railway to Nam Tok. Once there, make sure you visit the Sai Yok National Park with its two Sai Yok waterfalls, the perfect way to cool down on a hot sunny day. Whilst in Sai Yok, check out the Mueang Sing historical park, where you will discover the ruins of a Khmer town and temple.

The spectacular seven-tiered Erawan waterfall, situated in the Erawan National Park must not be missed, and climbing the 1,500 feet to the very top offers incredible views out over the top of the jungle. It is easy to combine a visit to Erawan National Park with a trip to the nearby tiger temple of Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, where many tame tigers reside and roam freely under the watchful eye of the gentle monks who also live there.

Of course, Kanchanaburi is famous for its World War II POW camps, and visits to the JEATH War Museum and the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum are good places to find out the facts behind this sad period of history, whilst people can pay their respects at the Kanchanaburi War Cemeteries.

There is plenty for the adventurous to do and activities such as trekking, cave exploration, elephant riding and canoeing are all popular. Kanchanaburi’s roads are good and clearly sign posted, so a good way to spend a day or two is to hire a bicycle or a motorbike and drive off into the countryside.

It’s worth trying to time your trip to coincide with the River Khwae Bridge week, which is celebrated around November with sound and light shows at the Death Railway Bridge.

Buriram, Thailand

Buriram, Thailand
buriram_4
Buriram, Thailand

Many places in Thailand are given poetic names and Buriram, which means City of Happiness, is no exception. The town of Buriram is the capital of Buriram Province in Isan and is located roughly 410 kilometers northeast of Bangkok.

Located on the northeastern railway line and with a regional airport; Buriram Airport, Buriram is easily assessable. Buriram Province is steeped in history and the beautiful backdrop makes this a good place in which to chill out for a few days and to get to know Thailand.

The Phanom Rung Historical Park, 40 kilometres south of Buriram town is situated on the summit of an erupted volcano and has spectacular views of the surrounding paddy fields. This thousand-year-old site contains one of the most important Khmer sites outside Cambodia, the magnificent Phanom Rung temple, which is also the largest Khmer monument in Thailand.

The Khmer temple at nearby Prasat Meung Tam is also well worth a visit, and there are dozens of other interesting Khmer ruins in the area such as Kuti Reusi Nong Bua Rai, Kuti Reusi Khok Meuang and Prasat Khao Praibat.

Bird enthusiasts should check out the Buriram Bird Park, and the ancient kilns at Tao Sawai ancient kilns offer an insight into the craft of pottery.

The Lower Isan Cultural Centre is a good place to visit to learn more about the rich and interesting history and people of this unique area, and the beautiful Khao Kradong Forest Park, with its enormous Buddha image crowning a hill offers spectacular views over the lush green countryside.

Buriram Province is some what cooler than most of Thailand and a great way to explore the region and pass a few days is to hire a bicycle and explore.